Until “Frozen” came along, “The Lion King” was the highest-grossing Disney animated movie of all time, with just under $1 billion in ticket sales around the world. The film about the adventures of the young lion Simba spawned a stage production and a direct-to-video sequel, “The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride.”
Now it’s the basis for a new made-for-cable film, “The Lion Guard: Return to the Roar” that will become a series on the Disney Channel in 2016.
The film introduces Kion (Max Charles), the second-born cub of Simba and Nala, who is destined to become leader of the Lion Guard, a team of animals composed of the Pride Lands’ fiercest, bravest, fastest, strongest and keenest of sight. The team he assembles includes: Bunga (Joshua Rush), a fearless honey badger; Fuli (Diamond White), a confident cheetah; Beshte (Dusan Brown), a friendly and good-spirited hippo; and Ono, an egret voiced by “The Middle” star Atticus Shaffer.
The inspiration for Ono’s voice came from a Crane – Niles Crane. Shaffer was told about the character played by David Hyde Pierce on the TV series “Frasier” before he auditioned for the new animated film.
“My mother knew exactly who they were talking about and she pulled up a couple of clips for me to watch. I saw how frenetic and intelligent he was, plus being a very giving person with a big heart,” Shaffer says during a phone interview during an off day from his primary job as Brick on the ABC family comedy “The Middle.”
Shaffer has been doing voice work for years on “The Penguins of Madagascar,” “Fish Hooks” and “Steven Universe.” He took the coaching about Niles Crane and added his own spin to it. The producers liked how he could make his voice break and they kept that as part of the character.
Being part of an animated show is a job Shaffer loves because he’s been a cartoon fan since he was very young. He recalls seeing “The Lion King” at home when his family rented a VHS copy.
“I was 2 when I discovered the remote and came across the Cartoon Network,” Shaffer says. “I watched the ‘Tom and Jerry’ cartoons and all of the ‘Looney Toons,’ especially Tweety Bird. When I would fall asleep on the couch I would wake up to old ‘Popeye’ cartoons.
“Animation is such a whimsical world and an amazing way to tell stories,” he says.
One thing about the process that works is the recording sessions can be juggled around his production schedule for “The Middle.” It helps that the studios are only five minutes apart.
Sometimes he’s in a recording studio by himself, but he prefers working with his fellow voice actors.
“We all have a good chemistry anyway and blend together well. But when you get a lot of young people in the same room, they will start talking and telling jokes,” Shaffer says. “That energy helps us get into character. We are like a superhero team of good versus evil.”
He feels like he has the same team at “The Middle.” One of the benefits of being on the ABC comedy is that he gets a lot of mail from people who are inspired by his character, a reclusive bookworm who occasionally repeats words in a hushed vice. Most are inspired without knowing Shaffer has osteogenesis imperfecta type IV, a genetic condition characterized by bones that break easily.
The reaction he gets from fans has made working on “The Middle” “a blessing.”
“Brick shows what I believe, that it’s OK to be unique and smart. We are all created to be different. Getting to show that is one of the things I love about the show,” Shaffer says.
He also loves that the series lets him work with The Boot Campaign, an organization whose mission is to promote patriotism for America and the military community; raise awareness of the unique challenges service members face during and after service; and provide assistance to military personnel and their families.
Shaffer is the celebrity ambassador for the the Patriot League, a kid-centered initiative designed to encourage patriotism and support for the military among kids.
Shaffer’s character is new to the “Lion King” world, as are many of the characters introduced in the movie. Mufasa and Pumbaa will be voiced by James Earl Jones and Ernie Sabella, who reprise their original roles. Rob Lowe and Gabrielle Union star as Simba and Nala, respectively, and Sarah Hyland voices Tiifu.
The Lion Guard: Return of the Roar
- 7 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 22, Disney Channel